Henry IV, part 1

From Academic Kids

Henry IV, Part 1 is a history play by William Shakespeare. It is set in a period beginning sometime in 1402 and ending in July, 1403. The play follows on from Richard II and is succeeded by Henry IV, part 2 and Henry V.



Template:Expandsect The main plot of Henry IV, Part 1 deals with a Scottish challenge to King Henry IV led by Henry Percy ("Hotspur"), the son of the Earl of Northumberland. But just as important to the play is the subplot, consisting of several comic scenes in the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap in which Prince Hal, the 'heir to the thrown', carouses with his lowlife friends Poins, Jack Falstaff, Bardolph, and Francis the Page.

Prince Hal connects the two plots; he is the son of Henry IV and the friend and comrade of Sir John Falstaff. He is widely criticized for theft, irresponsibility and over-association with commoners by the lords of his father's court (and especially by his father, himself) but eventually proves himself in battle by defeating Hotspur.

Hal plays a number of tricks on the drowsy and pudgy Falstaff. At one point he and Bardolph dress themselves in green (like Robin Hood and his men) and attack Falstaff in disguise, then later encourage him to lie about the encounter. Later Hal picks the knight's pocket, taking a valuable ring and claiming it to be a copper imitation. Hal and Falstaff also stage a skit making fun of the English court for the amusement of their tavern buddies.

The turning point in Hal's development comes in Act III, scene ii. His father, guilty over the sin of deposing and killing Richard II (the anointed ruler), sees God's punishment in all the disasters that hover over his realm, including Prince Hal's irresponsible conduct. (Incidentally, the crusade he is planning at the start of the play is part of an effort to redeem himself for this sin.) In this scene, the king has a private conversation (royal conference) with the prince, in which he says, "As thou art to this hour was Richard then/ When I from France set foot at Ravenspurgh;/ And even as I was then Percy is now." Hal gives an eloquent reply that may seem overdone and gore-obsessed to modern audiences, but to Elizabethans would have been a clear signal of his change of character: "I will redeem all this on Percy's head/ And, in the closing of some glorious day,/ Be bold to tell you that I am your son,/ When I will wear a garment all of blood,/ And stain my favors in a bloody mask,/ Which, washed away, shall scour my shame with it . . . And I will die a hundred thousand deaths/ Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow."

Hal does not immediately abandon Falstaff and his commoner friends, and in fact uses Falstaff's recruiting skills to enlarge his army against the Scots, but does move rapidly into a more responsible role that culminates in the slaying of Hotspur (the rejection of Falstaff occurs at the end of Henry IV, part 2 and Falstaff's death in Henry V). However, the prince's sense of humor and good-natured friendship with the cowardly knight are preserved even then, for when Falstaff invents a series of outrageous lies to claim credit for killing Hotspur, Hal says, "For my part, if a lie do thee grace,/ I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have."

Themes and interpretations

At its first publication in 1597 or 1598 the play was entitled The History of Henrie the Fourth and its title page advertised only the presence of Harry Hotspur and the comic Sir John Falstaff; Prince Hal was not mentioned. Indeed, throughout most of the play's performance history, Hal was seen as a relatively uninteresting figure, and the stars of the stage typically preferred to play Hotspur. It was only in the twentieth century that readers and performers began to see the central interest as the coming-of-age of Hal, who is now seen as the starring role.

In the 'coming-of-age' interpretation, Hal's acquaintance with Falstaff and the tavern lowlife humanizes him, as well as rounding out the view of Elizabethan life. At the outset, Prince Hal seems to pale in comparison with the fiery Henry "Hotspur" Percy, the young noble lord of the North (whom Shakespeare portrays about 23 years younger than he was in history in order to provide a foil for Hal). For many readers, Prince Hal grows up, evolving into King Henry V, perhaps the most heroic of all of Shakespeare's characters, in what is a tale of the prodigal son writ large against the backdrop of medieval England.

Other readers have, however, looked at Hal more critically; the play can be read as nostalgic for the old-fashioned honour and chivalry of Hotspur, and Hal can appear as a budding Machiavel. In this reading, there is no 'ideal king': the gradual rejection of Falstaff is a rejection of Hal's humanity in favour of cold realpolitik.


Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight (1965) compiles the two Henry IV plays into a single, condensed storyline, while adding a handful of scenes from Henry V. The movie, also known as Falstaff, features Welles himself in the title role.

External links



  • Wright, Louis B, LaMar, Virginia A. (eds.) The Folger Library General Reader's Shakespeare: Henry IV, Part I
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. "Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion in Henry IV and Henry V." In Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (eds.), Political Shakespeare (1985), pp. 18-47.
  • Barker, Roberta. "Tragical-Comical-Historical Hotspur." Shakespeare Quarterly 54.3 (2003): 288-307.



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